BPS updates

The Riots: a comment special

What was behind England’s riots, and how can psychology contribute going forward?

17 October 2011

Failure to learn would be criminal

We watched the coverage of the riots in England, like many readers of this publication, with concern and shock. Yet much of the violence seemed familiar to us in Scotland. The sensation seeking, the recreational violence, the lack of empathy – they are all things we’ve seen, and seen far too often on our streets. We can make no detailed comment on the English riots as all the facts are not known as yet. What we can do is offer some observations.

Seven years ago, Scotland was identified as the most violent country in Europe. Our murder and violence rates were appalling and a source of national shame, even though our crime detection rate was excellent (and still is). The strong bonds in Scotland between alcohol, gangs, knives and general violence prompted us to action. The conversations we had then in Scotland are exactly the same ones that England is having now.

Through our research, we found that there was not much scope within criminal justice for long-term violence prevention – the solution, by and large, was simply to lock up violent offenders. We then looked at the public health approach to violence, as laid out by the World Health Organization in 2002.

This model treats violence as a disease. For example, years ago, if you were diagnosed with measles, you were put in a sanatorium where you remained until you were better. It didn’t reduce the chances of anyone else getting measles, but it made us feel safer. We were doing the same thing with violence. If we considered someone a risk, a violent person, we locked them up. It made us feel safer. But putting someone in prison didn’t stop others being violent. We needed to focus on prevention, in effect ‘inoculating’ people against violence through prevention programmes.

Through our work, violence has become a stated public health issue in Scotland, alongside other diseases like measles and TB. Adopting this approach led us to examine violence in a new way. What was the scale of the problem? What were the risk and protective factors? What works in preventing violence and how could we scale it up to a population level? We now talk about how to prevent violence at three levels: primary prevention – for example early years; secondary prevention – targeting those at risk; and tertiary prevention – dealing with those victims and offenders already infected. To achieve long-term change we need to work in all three of these areas.

Violence is complex and complicated. This often inhibits us from acting – many people have said ‘it’s too big, don’t bother’ – but try we must. It is the study of the worst of human behaviour and the interaction of environment. For us, using practical psychology – around child psychology, health psychology, groups or around motivation to change – has allowed us to both look at the observed behaviour and try to be innovative around how we affect change in a large population. We have tried to develop 21st-century solutions for a 21st-century Scotland.

Understanding how and when people are motivated to change their behaviour has been key to tackling issues around knives, group violence, alcohol, child and domestic abuse. It has also allowed us to engage further upstream in child development and look at the acquisition of soft skills, such as empathy and communication, as protective factors, which are crucial in the prevention of violence. Adam Smith suggested in the 1700s that empathy was the glue that kept society together – how right he was.

Our gangs initiative, the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV), which was highlighted by the Prime Minister recently, was founded from our study. It comes firmly within the literature around groups and behavioural change. Yet we also looked at what was different: whilst there was violence within our gangs, the participants also committed violence on their own and in pairs – violence was the issue, not the gang. Our aim was to reduce violence and we recognised that for many of the offenders we targeted, the gang provided many positive support functions that were absent within their home lives – as human beings we all seek the positive aspects that a group can bring. We are not gang busters – it is the behaviour of the gangs, the committing of violent acts, that we aim to stop and prevent.

There will be no single solution that will address all of our social problems. CIRV works for gang members in Glasgow. An evidence-based approach that worked in Boston and in Cincinnati, it could work elsewhere with the right people involved. However, it is just one of the myriad solutions we have tried to put in place in Scotland to achieve long-term sustainable change.

So here is the challenge. For years we have been concentrating on why things have got so bad, and we endlessly describe the issues, always with the phrase at the end which states ‘we need more research’. What we need are solutions, both at a population and an individual level, if we are to move the country forward. We need to evolve the research paradigms to what works and why. We are already starting to see this practical application, but we need much more, we need evidence and ideas. We need your help.

We are a practical unit – a policing unit. Like partners in health and a range of other areas, we want to make a difference. It has required understanding, innovation, bravery, resilience, but most of all aspiration that this can be different and that we can change. Most of us will agree that what happened within the riots was criminal, but what will be more criminal will be if we fail to learn lessons and change for the better.

Karyn McCluskey

Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan

Co-directors, Violence Reduction Unit

Crowd psychology and public order management

Having studied ‘riots’ for my entire career, what was shocking was not the disturbances but the explanations and reactions to them. On the one hand, moral outrage at the ‘riots’ led to situations where assertions that they could not be understood as ‘mindless criminality’ were openly attacked as apologism. On the other, a myriad of ‘experts’ sidelined crowd psychology by re-asserting the idea that crowds are irrational. But perhaps of more concern was that the UK government – speaking about ‘phoney human rights’ – asserted that the police required water cannon and baton rounds. Thankfully, the ACPO President Sir Hugh Orde retorted that the police neither needed nor wanted such weaponry.

It was in this context of criticism that the Home Secretary Theresa May argued that the ‘riots’ represented a need for fundamental police reform. However, as she herself acknowledged, reform of public order policing was already well under way following the inquiries into the policing of the G20 protests in London in April 2009. These reforms recognise the rationality within ‘riots’ and are underpinned by an adherence to human rights. As a consequence, these changes are not focused on distance weaponry but upon increasing police capacity for liaison and dialogue (HMIC, 2009); an approach that it would appear has little relevance in the ‘post-riot agenda’.

Research and theory suggests that there is a strong relationship between police capability for dialogue with radicalised groups, police legitimacy and their ability to prevent ‘riots’ (e.g. Stott, 2011; Stott et al., in press). In this respect it is important that following the shooting of Mark Duggan no family liaison took place – as would be normal in such situations. Consequently, on the following Saturday the family and local community representatives – already historically aggrieved at police actions toward the black community – decided to mount a protest outside Tottenham police station calling for information on the death of their son.

The crowd waited for nearly three hours, and information was not, from their point of view, adequately forthcoming. It was subsequent to these key circumstances that the attacks against police vehicles and the ‘riots’ in Tottenham took place. A central message then is that had the Metropolitan Police created dialogue immediately following the shooting incident it is very unlikely the protest crowd would have emerged on Saturday afternoon. Had the protest not taken place it is unlikely that there would have been attacks on police cars and then therefore the escalation into Tottenham High Road and beyond (Reicher & Stott, 2011).

Taking this into account it should be clear that our science rejects calls for distance weaponry and locates effective police response in the capacity to establish links to the increasingly radicalised groups within our society. Rather than simply accepting the challenge to our science, I would therefore argue it is actually the basis from which we can adequately start to address how the ‘riots’ originated and understand the developments in policing that must subsequently take place.

Clifford Stott

University of Liverpool


Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (2009). Adapting to protest – Nurturing the British model of policing. London: HMIC.

Reicher, S. & Stott, C. (2011). Mad mobs and Englishmen: Myths and realities of the 2011 riots. London: Constable & Robinson.

Stott, C. (2011). Crowd dynamics and public order policing. In T.D. Madensen and J. Knutsson (Eds.) Preventing crowd violence. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Stott, C., Hoggett, J. & Pearson, G. (in press). ‘Keeping the peace’: Social identity, procedural justice and the policing of football crowds. British Journal of Criminology.

You can’t explain something when you don’t even know what it is

Steve Reicher, as interviewed by Taylor Burns for the Cognoculture blog – see www.nature.com/scitable/blog/cognoculture

You were approached by the media in the days following the riots. What have you noticed in your interviews?

The first problem in interviews – and it’s not surprising – is that people are looking for instant explanations. So they want to push you and say, ‘Why did these things happen?’ But the basis of any good science is that any explanation has got to be rooted in a sound empirical account of the phenomena. The simple fact of the matter is that, at this stage, we don’t have that. We don’t know who participated, we don’t know the extent to which action was collective or individual and opportunistic, and don’t have a systematic account of what the targets were. We certainly don’t know how participants conceptualised themselves. Did they see themselves in racial terms, in class terms, in terms of locality or something else? So the point is, how can you explain something when you don’t even know what that something is?

The danger is that we get explanations that are rooted in a single anecdote. Clearly, one aspect of these riots is that they were heterogeneous. They were heterogeneous on three levels. They were heterogeneous in terms of different events in different places on different nights. They were heterogeneous in terms of different people acting on different bases in the same event. They also had mixed and complex motivations. Therefore to use one anecdote and to generalise on the basis of it is necessarily going to be wrong.

If there is a bias that I’ve come across, it is the attempt by a media system – which has 24-hour rolling news – to push people to give explanations that can’t possibly be right. And again, the point about science, of course, is not only is it empirically based, but good science also guides you towards the important questions to ask about the data. To my mind, what our psychological science gives us is – at this stage – an indication of the types of questions we should be asking about the riots. But, of course, it can’t give us instant answers – it would be like asking a doctor to diagnose a patient when they haven’t thoroughly examined the patient.

We don’t know what happened.

What of the reactionary response – by both right and left – to pinpoint this on the ‘marginalised’?

It’s always been an instant response to riots to say that they are the marginal in society, they are people who are already violent in society. Those studies that have been done – and the biggest study was the Kerner Commission after the American riots of the 60s – showed that the average ghetto rioter was not marginal. On the whole they were more educated than the norm, at least in the communities that participated. They were more likely to be members of more community organisations, and they were less likely to have a criminal background. So again, the presupposition that this is a gang phenomenon is untested – we simply don’t know.

Or again, that somehow there is a loss of parental respect. What our own research and contemporary research has shown that young people involved in violence don’t want their parents to know. They do it in such a way that their parents don’t hear about it. But then when their mums do hear about this they don’t like it, in fact they’re upset if their parents are upset. The notion that these are people who come from broken homes and don’t give a damn what their parents think and we’ve got this young feral generation – again, this is an entirely untested set of assumptions based, on the whole, on political presuppositions.

The explanations that are coming out are very much bound up with this politics of blame.

Is the politics of blame not present in the media as well, and perhaps indirectly perpetuated by academics?

One of the problems, I think, is that 24-hour rolling news and the desire for instant accounts and instant explanations mean that we make claims on events before we know what those events are. In part, of course, it’s academics themselves. Especially in the current ‘impact’ climate, academics want that visibility, they want to come out and say these things, they want to claim their patch, they want to be the expert so they can claim their funding. So we’re not entirely innocent victims, we’re part and parcel of this system.

Journalists are working to very tight deadlines. They have to get hold of somebody, so they will get hold of whoever is available – it doesn’t have to be the best person. And the other thing is, of course, journalists want news. They want somebody to say something controversial. If you look at a radio interview or a TV interview and they all agree and form a consensus, that’s not interesting.

Academics are sometimes lazy as well. They will talk, and they will offer opinions on things for which they are non-experts. On the one hand, we have a responsibility to put our ideas in the public domain – we absolutely do. But at the same time, we need to restrain ourselves to talking about things where we have something distinctive to say that is based on a particular knowledge of the area.

It’s hard, sometimes, to limit yourself. When you have a charming journalist who invites you to go beyond the boundaries, it does happen. And that’s quite flattering. Especially at an international level – if someone from another country phones you up there is that sense that ‘Oh, this makes me an international expert’. There are great temptations. We have to be very clear about the limits.

Is this a particular burden of the social sciences? It’s tantamount to a stem cell biologist being called in to comment on a behavioural biology story – something you’d rarely see. But, in one week, we’ve had clinical psychologists or neuroscientists who have, all of a sudden, become experts in crowd psychology.

We have also had epidemiologists talking about crowds and taking literally the metaphor of contagion. So there is a real danger of people straying into areas they know nothing about and talking nonsense as a result.

These are all models of social influence rooted in the classic Le Bonian notion that, in crowds, people lose identity, lose the standards against which they would normally judge events and judge actions, and therefore are automatically influenced by whatever ideas and emotions are out there. So the notion of ‘copycat’ is that it is automatic, it’s not that what you’re doing has any meaning, it’s not that it’s connected to your reality. It is, if you like, a mindless form of action.

They are all theories that root crowd action in the pathology of the actor. Now, it could be a permanent pathology: these are criminal peoples, people with a flawed culture. Or it could be a temporary pathology: these are perfectly reasonable people who have been carried away by the mob. These classic crowd psychologies – the two versions of them – are a permanent pathology (Allportian) or the temporary pathology (Le Bonian). Again these explanations are about mindlessness, meaninglessness and they’re about rooting crowd action in the pathology of the actor.

Now, these are ideas that have been around for a very long time. Science, at some level, can move fast but permeate slowly. For instance, take the notion of deindividuation. It’s about how anonymity in the group leads to lack of restraint. It’s perfectly true that you will still see deindividuation in the textbooks. But there is evidence from the last 20 or 30 years that the idea does not stack up. In groups, when people become anonymous, what they do is they shift from individual to social identity and then act on the basis of collective norms, values, standards.

There are published meta-analyses of deindividuation data that support that idea. There have been individual studies and crowd studies. One of the odd things about the deindividuation literature is that it’s one of those examples of psychological studies that assume the nature of the phenomenon and then study it in the laboratory, and what they find in the laboratory they then project back on to the real-world phenomenon. The problem is, this is false. On the whole, people know each other in crowds, they recognise each other, often they’re part of the same community.

When you start, not by looking at the process in the lab, but looking at the phenomena you are trying to understand, what you nearly always find in crowds are meaningful patterns of action. Let me give you a couple of quite classic examples.

The first one – which I really like – is E.P. Thompson’s study of food riots. You might think of food riots as an incredibly simple thing – people get hungry, they need food, they grab food, they eat it. In other words, an explosion based on a biological need. What you find, however, is that food riots had very clear patterns. They didn’t happen at the period of greatest dearth, they tended to happen when there was slightly more food available. They happened around the transport of food outside of localities. And then, in the rioting, the food was seized, sold at a popular price, and the money was sometimes given back to the merchants.

Thompson explains it as follows: we’re looking at a period where there are two different visions of how society should be organised. There’s an older version based on feudal society whereby the locality is central. And then there’s the emergent market-based philosophy whereby you move a commodity to market where it can command the greatest price. It’s when those two moralities or two visions of the world clash – i.e. when food is transported out of the locality – that you get a riot. This is what E.P. Thompson called the moral economy of the crowd. In other words, the collective understandings of the participants are enacted in what they do and what they say.

Now, you can go from E.P. Thompson to a whole series of crowds, and almost every time you do, you find similar patterns. That pattern is sometimes a bit messy, because the other thing to be said about crowds, of course, is that there might be some people acting collectively on the social identity, then once they’re doing that, people can do all sorts of things for individual advantage. So clearly, in a riot, there will be people who want to get flatscreen TVs or settle some grievances. So things are messy, but overall, when you look at patterns of events, what you tend to find is an ideologically intelligent pattern.

A physical crowd is a mixture of people acting as psychological group members and some people acting for individual advantage. But those, on the whole, who act collectively act meaningfully based on social identities. And therefore – this is a critical point – what people do in crowds is a beautiful reflection of their collective understandings.

Certain historians are recognising that. For historians, one of the problems is how to understand the perspective of those groups who don’t leave written records. And the answer is, in crowds. The crowd is an incredibly powerful resource. It tells you about the perspectives that have led to forms of rioting. At an explanatory level, to pathologise the crowd is to lose the best resource you have for understanding why the people are acting as they are.

What do you think of some scientists’ abstract connections between the riots and, say, theories of developmental psychology and even neuroscience?

One thing that is happening is that people are ridiculing distal explanations by turning them into proximal explanations. It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that the whole cacophonation of political choices lead to a sense that certain groups are marginalised in society and don’t have opportunities.

It’s when you overextend what you’re trying to explain that you come undone.

When it comes to these other types of explanations – the role of the father, the empathic brain, and so on –] there is precious little basis for believing that they are relevant. Of course I wouldn’t rule them out of court. But my concern with them is, firstly, the fact that some of the assumptions on which they are based are entirely untested. And secondly, that what’s unclear is exactly at what level – proximal or distal – they are supposed to explain these events.

The other thing that has been particularly problematic and pernicious is confusion over what is an explanation and what is a description. Criminality is undoubtedly a description of the act. There is no doubt that criminality is a description. The problem is it’s conflated with an explanation. This is circular reasoning. Criminality is not an explanation.

Something profoundly anti-scientific is going on. And the worst of all those things, is the attempt to pathologise anybody who tries to explain.

Steve Reicher is writing a book with Clifford Stott, to be released in October - see www.madmobsandenglishmen.com